I already know going in that this piece will not be pleasant for several reasons (it will also not be short . . . fair warning), but an honest conversation needs to happen. May it be in love, but also in conviction and in truth.
Now, before I go any further, let me say this: if you are experiencing depression and thoughts of suicide, please, I urge you, get the help that is available. The Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 is a good first step. They will listen to you and talk with you as long as you need. Speak to a medical professional who can help diagnose and treat your condition. Continue reaching out, whether it be a spouse, significant other, parent, sibling, close friend, your church, or whatever community you belong to. There are people who care about you, who love you, and who will walk on this journey with you. Your life is precious and worth living. Things are not okay now, but as long as you keep going, they can be okay.
Now let us talk. I think we need to shine a light on some things.
As you have likely heard by now, celebrity chef and host of CNN's Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain, tragically passed away after taking his own life. This is mere days after fashion designer Kate Spade also took her own life. One of these is sad enough, but two, and mere days apart? If you are at all like me, you cannot help but wonder what is going on. You just know that there is something amiss.
You may not be wrong. Suicide rates are on the rise. Amongst teens alone, it is up 33% as of 2017. The CDC states that suicide in total across the entire nation has steadily risen between 1999 and 2016. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, claiming nearly 45,000 Americans annually. Considering that suicide has a copycat effect, this tragedy could be reproducing itself.
Is that all, though? Some suggest suicide is becoming common due to how easy it is to follow through with. Bullying is another suggested factor. Perhaps we are sleep deprived. In teens, perhaps it could be that they are removing themselves from social activities and losing themselves in smartphones and social media. Our relationships are strained and we become isolated. Perhaps we long for anything that makes us feel loved and wanted that we will even find it in the sexual intimacy of someone else, even if it is casual, but at least it is something . . . even if that "causal something" can make our emotional and mental states worse.
These are all legitimate approaches to explaining how people become depressed or set off some other mental, emotional, and psychological health concerns, as well as how some may consider, attempt, and go through with suicide. I will not tell you that any of these, and many other explanations, are invalid or missing their respective marks.
What I will say, however, is that there are deeper roots to all this. In a piece originally appearing in Intellectual Takeout, titled Suicide in America Is Surging. What’s Driving This Mentality of Despair?, author Annie Holmquist points out that the CDC showed in its report of the increase suicide rates that half of those who took their own lives did not have a "known mental health condition." So if mental illness is only accounting for half of all suicides, what about the half that it does not?
Annie Holmquist goes to the work of University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom for further explanation. In his 1988 book, The Closing Of The American Mind, Bloom says:
“The moral education that is today supposed to be the great responsibility of the family cannot exist if it cannot present to the imagination of the young a vision of a moral cosmos and of the rewards and punishments for good and evil, sublime speeches that accompany and interpret deeds, protagonists and antagonists in the drama of moral choice, a sense of the stakes involved in such choice, and the despair that results when the world is ‘disenchanted . . . This gradual stilling of the old political and religious echoes in the souls of the young accounts for the difference between the students I knew at the beginning of my teaching career and those I face now. The loss of the books has made them narrower and flatter. Narrower because they lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. The longing for the beyond has been attenuated. The very models of admiration and contempt have vanished. Flatter, because without interpretations of things, without the poetry or the imagination’s activity, their souls are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around."
Our moral foundation is gone. It has been annihilated to make way for a pieced together structure where we "find the truth within ourselves" instead of gaining the truth from a source greater than ourselves. We have traded a greater calling of a higher power for temporal accomplishment and status. We have traded out the fulfillment of what is good and what we were made for to be replaced with forever seeking fulfillment from anything that promises to grant it yet never does. We have discarded the truth to be replaced with our truth.
Consider this fact: the self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, and is only increasing in its prominence and profitability. Yet, as we have seen, suicides are on the rise. I am not against self-help ideas, but there is a problem when self-help replaces the belief in a higher power that sustains you, everyone around you, and life itself. When the religion of the day is so inwardly focused that it loses sight of things that really matter, things that are often outside of yourself, we are condemned to a society of isolated individuals, unhappy, unfulfilled, and yet defensive in status of living unhappy, unfulfilled lives.
You may think I'm being over-the-top, but considering that statistically, every single one of us are at an increased risk of suicide, perhaps there is something to it.
That is perhaps the most frightening aspect: no matter how mentally sound, emotionally guarded, psychologically healthy, or spiritually vigorous we are, the truth is that this culture lacking purpose and hope, and all of the beliefs, viewpoints, ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that feed into it, affects us all. Now I will not go so far as to say that mental illness and the like are communicable, because there is no solid scientific evidence to support it, but I do not think it is a stretch to think that many things contribute to a communicable state of misery, unease, and utter pointlessness that becomes increasingly inescapable. Maybe our minds are not snapping, but our hearts are certainly breaking.
While we may want to understand the mental health of those who commit, think of, or attempt suicide - and we should - perhaps we should also ask what sort of environment we are creating for them, those who could end up like them, and ourselves.
Kate Spade reportedly struggled with crippling depression. All her life, she experienced extreme highs and extreme lows. Despite her wild success in the fashion industry, she could not handle the lowest low of her husband wanting a divorce. Being an established woman, completely able to show her own self-worth, did not matter when it came to the matters of the heart.
Anthony Bourdain struggled with depression, drug addiction, feelings of being alone, and described himself as a narcissist. He was the success story many believe they need to hear - colossal screw up gets it right later in life, finding success, love, and family well into his 40s and 50s. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Bourdain had need or want of nothing. Yet that success, prominence, and worldwide travels did not quiet the demons.
These two high profile suicides suggest that the many things we seek after - success, wealth, self-worth, or what have you - do not save us from what ails us deep down. You may think, "Of course it doesn't, we all know that," but be honest, many of us live lives chasing after fleeting satisfaction, trying our absolute hardest to find meaning in things that lack it. We may know these things do not lead to happiness and fulfillment, but we live as if we believe it does.
Before you suggest that I am saying that we need to abandon pursuit of success and everything else tied to it, just know that I am not. I am firmly in the camp of trying to increase my success in life, as it is a good motivator for me to improve in the career paths I have taken. What I try to do is not make my success my purpose in life, but to place it firmly within the perspective of a greater purpose beyond this life. After all, this world is temporary, this life is short, and eternity is just that: eternal. Surely our purpose in this life is divine and beyond the mortal coil.
Let us consider this: Kate Spade could not handle her husband seeking a divorce. While we do not know the whole story behind that, I can imagine that living in a world where divorce is so common (40% to 50% of all U.S. marriages) that many of us expect it to happen, plan on it happening, and convince ourselves that we are fine if it does happen; essentially, we harden our hearts. Perhaps we avoid marriage all together to avoid the assumed "obstacles" that marriage supposedly puts in our way.
Anthony Bourdain was given the opportunity to connect with and inspire millions around the world, really diving into the cultures of those people, yet in a world that constantly says purpose is nonexistent and this world is all we have (“you only live once”), it is difficult to believe that even when we do good that it matters at the end of it all.
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain leave behind children. Having brought the life of young ones into this world should give them a sense of vitality that warrants living their lives to the fullest and with the most meaning. Yet we live in a culture that demonizes family, and sees children as a cancer to be eradicated through abortion and "child-free" lifestyles.
We are so career, status, and prominence focused - obsessed with self-fulfillment first and foremost - and now many, enriching good and great things that the human race has held up as the pinnacle of life now mean nothing. We seek to please ourselves, unable to bear even a single inconveniece or struggle that gets in our way, and everything and everybody else can be considered when it suits us.
Yet, depression is going up, anxiety is going up, suicides are going up, and we are increasingly empty. We claim society wants us to "settle down" and not reach our goals, to trade our happiness for unwanted compromise, but in truth, society demands the opposite. Society expects nothing of us except our own self-fulfillment. We are, after all, in the "you do you" age. We are expected to worry only about ourselves, everybody and everything else be damned. We have forsaken enriched personal lives, lived with and for others, for self-worship. You may think, “What’s wrong with taking care of myself?” Absolutely nothing. We are still individuals with our own struggles, our own dreams, and we are, at the end of the day, the ones who are responsible for them. There is, however, a problem with a great state of narcissism.
As it turns out, there is a major link between narcissism and depression. When we are so inwardly focused, we lose our purpose and hope. However, we also do not find purpose and hope in our surroundings of material and temporal things. We have lost a sense of value that is divinely inspired, replacing it with hollow values that are based on nothing inherently valuable. We have tried to find community amongst people who share common interests and viewpoints - political ideology and sexual identity being two of the most common - as well as try to find meaningful identity with people who share traits similar to ours - race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
Those things are fine on their own, but they lack the ability to provide that purpose and hope our souls need. After all, they basically say, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that we are not individuals with our own agency and our own destinies, but that we are nothing more than these fleeting interests and these immutable traits. No matter what we do, what we believe, and what we aspire towards, we will never be anything more than that. We are supposed to feel like we belong, yet we obviously are missing and longing for something greater.
As we have created this depressively narcissistic world where "you do you" is the apathetic marching order of the day, those who struggle with these crippling conditions, whether they be hereditary or created by environmental exposure, believe there is no purpose or hope they can ever find. Even if they could, perhaps they think it really does not matter. After all, what examples do they have to look to? Everyone is too busy living the hollow and empty "you do you" life. That apathy has rooted itself so deeply that even when someone does commit suicide, we believe it is just what they wanted and now they are free. After all, you do you.
So what can we do? While I do not believe I have a simple answer to this question, as I do not think there is a purely simple solution to a problem as vast as mental illness and how society and human behavior may feed into it, I can say that I believe we need to return to our God-given, God-driven, divinely inspired and focused roots. There we find our purpose and our hope that gives greater meaning than ourselves as to why we live.
In Matthew 6, verses 19 - 24, it is written,
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
What we treasure shows what is in our hearts. Again, there is nothing wrong with success, money, and any other things that come with it. However, the problem is not that we have these things, but that we love these things. As the growing rates of depression and suicide suggests, we love our darkness, hopelessness, and we have forsaken our purpose.
John 14, verses 15 - 17 say,
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Can we say we love God if we live agnostically or even atheistically every day? Do we become better when we praise Him with our lips yet deny Him in the everyday choices we make, and the viewpoints we lay claim to?
Perhaps our “Christian nation” needs to reconsider a few things.
What commands did Jesus, God the Son, give to us? Here are a few. While that list does not exhaust all truths of Scripture down to only 50 bullet points, you will notice that many, if not all of the things listed are commandments we as a society and culture have rejected wholesale.
We have rejected the idea of marriage, also called holy matrimony. Her husband, probably going along with the “you do you” marching order, seemed to miss the commands in Ephesians 5, verses 25 - 27, which says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.“ This rejection shown to Kate Spade is the lowest low she could not handle. Living in a society where marriage is so despised and where hers became yet another statistical downfall drove her over the edge.
We have rejected the idea of community. Again, I do not mean community built upon hollow foundations that focus on the superficial, but community gathered for greater-than-this-world purpose. Galations 6:2 says to, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." Anthony Bourdain felt alone, to which Ecclesiastes 4, verse 10 says, "... but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!" That loneliness lead Bourdain to seek drugs, he became very inwardly focused, and his accomplishments and accolades did nothing to lift him up.
These two high profile suicides were not the results of cowardice, but due to them being so lost in the darkness that our minds, hearts, and souls are not meant to be lost within. How did we help them? We created a culture that does not care. Could we say to people, like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, who do have marriages, who do have children, “Don’t give up; you have your family,” when we seem to hate those things? Sure, we could say, “Don’t give up; you have successful careers,” which everyone seems to focus on, but they were obviously screaming out, it does not matter!
Why point out marriage, children, and community? First, because they are relevant to both Spade and Bourdain, and secondly, because these are institutions and longings that God has gifted to us, yet our culture hates the two former and has corrupted the point of the one latter.
I could keep going down this path, but ultimately it has come down to the rejection of God and the things of God. Matthew 22:37 commands, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." As we continue to separate ourselves from God, continue to tell ourselves that we no longer need Him, or try to create a false-god that reflects our own fleeting desires and thoughts, we continuously and tragically create for ourselves a culture lacking purpose and hope.
God created us. He loves us. He has spelled out in His Word all the ways our lives are made whole. Christ said in John 10, verse 10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." Christ was not talking merely of salvation and eternal life, but a life filled more abundantly by living in the commands of God right now. It will not always equal status, wealth, fame, or accolades, but it is God's promise of an abundant life. A life of purpose and hope.
Do not get me wrong: I understand that even as God is our Father and Jesus is our Savior, our sin has ruined us. We are ruined not just spiritually, but even mentally, emotionally, and physically. Mental illness, like all illnesses, exist because sin exists. That does not mean that we merely offer to pray. While I do believe that prayer works, it works specifically when done by the faithful, and I find that too many professing Christians use the word (not the act, necessarily) of prayer as a cover for, "I said I would pray, and now I do not have to care about this any further."
The Church should approach mental health like any other health concerns: prayerfully, but realistically. If a man comes into your church hungry, will you not feed him? If a woman comes in with a broken arm, will you not call the doctor? If anyone amongst us suffers quietly with mental illness, then we seem to assume quickly that the solution is "pray it away."
The problem is that we are not a faithful people, we are not a righteous people, and the prayers of the unfaithful and the unrighteous not only mean nothing, but as it is written in Proverbs 28:9, "If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination."
We pray for ourselves and what we want (an attitude James 4:3 warns against), but we have abandoned, "not my will, but thine, Lord." Our society and our culture shows this abandonment of faith. The Church has kicked back and let this nation slip into its own hopelessness and despair. We lament the isolation and dissolving of real communities yet we have locked ourselves in our own isolation. We pack our churches to praise Jesus and commit ourselves to God every Sunday, and then we walk out and we live in a way that is telling God to leave us alone. We have no time for God, for His commandments, and thus His people. Of course, we have time for God so long as it does not inconvenience us, or so long as He "blesses us" (far too often, unfortunately, this translates to, "God, give me what I want and maybe we will talk."). We never give God our time, our attention, and our lives simply because He is worthy of all of it.
Even many of our churches seem to promote a narcissistic, inward focus, concentrating so strongly on “me, me, me” and “you, you, you,” and making God a footnote in the closing prayer. We have come to see Him less as the almighty giver of life, the one who sustains us, the one who leads us, the great I Am. Instead, He is the “get out of hell free” card, giving ourselves clearance to live our agnostic or atheistic lives "guilt-free", because at least we get to go to heaven.
People have noticed this confusing spectacle. Being that the human race is not one to live with a spiritual hole and ignore that hollowness, eventually they would crave to fill it. The Church gave up, because maybe the whole God thing was not everything they made it out to be, so what else is there? As I said, however, even many Christians live these quasi-Christian-but-keeping-my-options-open lives. That belief spilled over into lifestyle in all aspects, nothing left untouched. So what happened as a result?
If we cannot find God, then we will create god.
We turned to the politics of an uncaring, over-bloated government. We turned to career goals and accomplishments that will not mourn us when we die, and where we can be replaced within hours. We turned to cheap sex instead of deeper connections and holy unions that has the shared desire to beget and raise life and serve the Lord as one. We turned to group identities that limit true meaning by focusing on the immutable, uncontrollable, or temporal. We have traded life more abundant through God and Christ for "you do you." And guess what? Without a common value that truly is out of this world that we all feel compelled to aim towards, we have devolved into our tribes that also carry with them a lack of purpose and hope, because they too are reflections of our own inwardly focused lives, unnoticing and uncaring of what, and more importantly who, is outside of us.
We have tried to replace God with ourselves. Behold what we have wrought.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, "Not everybody who is religious is mentally healthy, and not everyone who is non-religious is mentally ill." You may also be thinking, "Not all marriages are happy, not all who are alone want to die, not all parents are good people" and so on. You are correct. Do not think that I am diagnosing us all as mentally ill and about to commit suicide, or that having these things automatically makes you immune to anything bad. Entering into marriage, having children, and being amongst others are certainly not in and of themselves panceas to this crisis.
What I am saying is that our thoughts and antagonistic views on these things are themselves not the core problems, but severe symptoms of the disease; the disease of rejecting God, whether in part or in totality, whether intentionally or not. All of our thoughts, perceptions, and resulting behaviors in the grand scheme of things can really do a lot to help, or a lot to hurt those who truly are vulnerable.
I will also say that many, if not all of us are, in fact, quite vulnerable. None of us are immune to sinking into the darkness. None of us are completely safe from losing our purpose and hope.
Even when we try to not slip into the darkness, we still feel its pull. Whether we are strong or weak, we all are in this fold that lacks purpose and hope. We are all affected by it. Whether we believe what is right and good or not, we are influenced by the culture. No matter how mentally strong we are, the human mind is not built to live in a constant state of confusion. We are certainly confused, because we want what the world tells us we want, but we oftentimes quietly and sometimes loudly long for something more.
We live nihilistically, thinking we can use our "will to power" as a way to muster through the chaos, noise, and emptiness. Maybe if we just try harder, succeed more, commit ourselves to our self-worth, then we can create that "something more" that we crave. We are in a constant state of seeking it, yet we never find it, because we look in all the wrong places for it.
God's life more abundant is that something more. It may not alleviate our struggles, but it puts them in a greater perspective. We must be made whole so that those who are broken can be lifted up. I liken it to a child who cannot receive a vaccination due to having an illness like leukemia, so it is on those who are healthy to vaccinate themselves so that the herd remains healthy and can still have a place for those who are not (anti-vaxxers, save it; I'm not interested).
Many seek purpose and hope, yet believe they can never attain it. If we cannot believe it ourselves, what encouragement can we give? If we continue to foster a culture lacking purpose and hope, we cannot truly be shocked when those in despair finally give in. If we truly care about this encroaching epidemic (some say it already is one), then we must reassess what type of culture we have created for ourselves, and for those most vulnerable. This, "you only live once, so you do you" ideology and the resulting culture is not helping lift anybody up.
Perhaps we need to return to first things, and rebuild a culture that has purpose and hope because it has a dedication to a higher purpose and a greater hope that only God can give. Before we stumble into worshipping the blessings, we must instead remember to worship the blesser. Before we lose ourselves in our own headspace, we should return to the Word of God. Before we idolize ourselves, we should instead look to God in all things.
In the end, maybe the answer is simple: apart from God, we are nothing. Apart from God, we certainly cannot be more to others. To those who are silently crying out for help, we are convinced that we are helping yet will only drag them further into the abyss. We are made to reflect God and to live as He intended.
"There is a transcendent, spiritual character to humanity, and we all innately recognize it. We find despair when we reject it and try to separate ourselves from it and from ourselves. Hope is found the other way, in the opposite direction. Hope is found when we embrace who we are, as children of God, and we keep our eyes and hearts focused on eternity, on home. God wants us there with Him. But not yet. There is still more to be done, more life to be lived, and we can live it in joy, knowing that there is a meaning and a point to all of this."
Church, it is time we reflect a bit. We can be in this world and take part in what goes on within it, whether politically, professionally, socially, or what have you. The questions we must ask ourselves are these: does the world know who our God is? Do they know whose commands we follow? Do they know who renewed our lives? Do they not just hear the words we say but see the transformed lives we lead?
On the other hand, do they look at us and see the world, see that we love the world, seek first the things of the world, and reflect perfectly this culture without purpose or hope? Let us take a hard, honest look at ourselves and see what we reflect: God, and all that honors Him, or the world, and everything that has rejected Him. Do they see in us a divinely inspired and commanded purpose and hope, or do they see that we only offer lip service to a belief that has nothing to offer?
Those of us in the faith have people in our lives who need the light of the Lord. The light shines brightest when all lamps are lit. Let us return to God, that we may have life and have it more abundantly. Let us keep His commandments. Let us live the lives He created us for. Then, and only then, can we truly shine the light to those lost in the darkness.